Sunday, May 5, 2002

The Rashomon Affect

Stop me if you've heard this one...

But almost everybody in America has the wrong idea about Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.

The popular conception is: something happens in the woods -- woman gets raped, husband killed, maybe yes, maybe no, but sumpin. Every different witness has a different story. They've all got their own REALITY, see? Ain't no way to get to the truth of what "really" happened. No such thing as "really happened." What's true for you ain't true for me, yattayatta. That's not it.

The stories are different because most of the story-tellers are lying or leaving stuff out to make themselves look good. The movie is not saying that objective truth is unattainable. We actually hear what happens at the end -- if I remember correctly -- from the wood carver who stole the woman’s knife.

Kurosawa isn't asking the sophomoric question, "What's real?" He's asking (from what seems to me a Buddhist perspective) is compassion real? Are the outward forms of loyalty, fellow-feeling and mutual obligation we call "civilization" real? Or is "humanity" a fraudulent mask concealing an absolutely nihilistic bestiality -- a mask that gets removed when nobody's looking? When people say "I love you, I care, you're my friend," etc., is it all one big lie?

Those are the questions he cares about. That's the film.

And I know what you're saying ...

That’s just your point of view.

And, no, actually not. That's not just the way I see it.

It's what the film is actually saying.

And you're probably saying I'm wrong, right?

Right. Your indulgence in such blatant subjectivity aside, everybody objectively knows that Rashomon is all about the absolute subjectivity of our various points of view.

See, there’s this murder and four people see it entirely differently. That’s what’s so amazing and wonderful about Rashomon, is it proves that everyone lives in their own reality, their own private little movie, and nobody’s movie is anymore real than anyone else’s. As a famous director with a beard once said, “All of it’s true and none of it’s true.”

No, no, no, no, no. What everybody knows is wrong!

What this mobius strip of mutually consensual theorizing actually proves is if you approach something with a idea in your head of what it’s going to be in advance, that idea is what you’ll see, even if the actual reality in no way resembles the notion in your noggin.

Pretty ironic if you ask me.

Just for laughs, let's review the actual movie. Watch it again and get back to me, OK? I'll wait.

You back? Great.

The film starts with a lot of questions -- then gets to the big one.

The opening scene shows various gob-smacked characters in the ruins of the old Kyoto gate. Something bad has just happened -- a terrible civil war. They're trying to make sense of it. The destruction of civilization is the context and the subtext of their talk.

This is analogous to Taylor and Dr. Zaius having a philosophical discussion in the ruins of the Statue of Liberty at the end of The Planet of the Apes. The obvious parallel to the historical period of the movie is the post-World War II devastation that Japan had recently emerged from. The discussion of the movie takes place against the backdrop of that loss and that pain.

Against the ruined backdrop, the characters say stuff like, “I don’t understand it. I can’t believe it. How could this happen?” It's not a sophomoric discussion. It's what traumatized survivors say.

What's real? What's true? Can you trust people?

See, those are the kind of things people say after something like, say, the Columbine massacre or the 9-11 tragedy. When such people say “I can’t understand it,” they're not talking about an incomprehensible multiverse reality of disconnected subjectivities. They're not saying this that, in one point of view, Jason Klebold attacked his school with a Supersoaker or, in another point of view, the World Trade Center was destroyed by a giant, flying pickle. “I can’t understand it” means: “How can that shit go down? How could somebody do that? How could human beings possibly sink that low?"

Then we get to the big question.

The question Kurosawa wrestles with is not, contrary to popular opinion, the Socrates Junior question of “What is reality?” (Granted that may have been the question pursued by Akutogawa in the original short stories the movie was based on. But it seems to bore the crap out of Kurosawa.)

The question that interests Kurosawa: "Is the human soul worthy of faith?" A young monk asks the question at the start. (Strictly speaking, he says, "This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.") It's a statement of a possible loss of faith, so it's still an open question.

So, is the human soul worthy of faith?

The rest of the movie provides the answer in the form of four narratives of the same scene told by four different characters.

The issue isn't subjectivity vs. objectivity. The issue is lies vs. truths. Specifically, the question of whether our notion of "humanity" is a lie. People wear the mask of civilization. Out in the forest -- out of sight of their peers -- they're capable of monstrous acts. Are human beings really monsters? Are our tales of honor, courage, family devotion and love simply lies?

Look back at the narratives the various characters tell. They're either total lies -- or distorted by lies.

Tajomaru’s story. (The Bandit character, played by Mifune.) It’s a lie.

The Woman's story. A lie.

The Samurai/husband's story. Another lie.

The Wood-cutters story. The truth -- except for one lie of omission. He hides the fact he stole a valuable knife.

It’s human to lie.

I could pick apart each story, but let's stick with one -- the bandit, Mifune's character. Why does the Bandit lie?

He seems disturbed ... defensive.

He’s acting – power-playing. He's trying to make himself look good.

He projects a certain image of himself. He's a fearless force or nature – an anarchic law unto himself but within his own code (within that he’s true to himself)

It all starts because the Bandit wants the Woman – but he doesn’t simply bushwhack the couple; he tricks the guy. Cleverly, he tells the Samurai that he’s stumbled on an old tomb full of treasure in the woods. The Samurai lets his guard down and follows. Once in the deep forest, the Bandit gets the better of him, overpowers him and ties him up. This makes the Bandit look clever -- and makes the Samurai look dishonorable. He is, after all, attempting to rob a tomb. You can’t cheat an honest man as W.C. Fields once observed.

The Bandit doesn’t simply rape the Woman. That’s the original plan, of course, but she pulls a dagger on him. Surprise, surprise -- the Bandit's animal magnetism is so powerful that (in neat little bit of sexual symbolism) she suddenly wants him -- and drops the dagger. After that, the Bandit fights her husband, the Samurai. "Crossed swords 27 times." Husband put up a good fight.

It’s a fair fight, an honorable fight. The Bandit doesn’t just stab the guy while he’s sitting there all tied up; he releases him and gives the man his sword.

You see what this all adds up to?

It’s so ridiculously, thuddingly obvious I shouldn’t have to point it out -- but everything the Bandit says has the effect of putting himself in the best possible light. He’s a warrior, clever, fearless, honorable, irresistibly sexy, outside the laws of society and proud of it. The one thing he isn’t is a coward. (Later on, we find out he is. The Woodcutter saw the whole thing and the Bandit comes off badly.)

The distortion of the Bandit's proud narrative isn't a result of his subjectivity. It's not a different point of view.

He’s lying.

Look at the way Mifune plays the scene. Commentators have stupidly accused him of overacting. Of course he is. That's the point. Now that he’s caught and going to die, he wants to look good. He wants the world to remember him as a feral warrior, not a p-whipped coward. He’s lying to save face, putting on a good front, bullshitting for all he’s worth. The other characters do the same.


The movie isn't saying, "We all live in our own subjective realities; what's true for you is not true for me." The movie is saying: "Everybody lies. If that's so, is our very notion of common humanity -- the basis of civilization -- a lie?"

No. We never know the truth. That's the point!


Despite the persistent urban legend, we actually know what happened in the forest.

The evidence is there, within the Bandit's segment alone. The truth about what went down (either in the real world or in his head) is no big mystery-shrouded, riddle-wrapped enigma. It is all so obvious, if you actually look at the movie that’s there minus the brainwashing of idiotic sheep critics bleating the received interpretation.

What is reality? Kurosawa couldn't care less.

Is the human soul worthy of faith? That's the big one. The one he cares about.

And, at the end of the movie, Kurosawa answers this question. The destitute Woodcutter decides to adopt a child abandoned on the Rashomon gate. The young monk says, "You have restored my faith in man." Clearly, that's the point of the movie. It brings tears to my eyes. Sophomoric discussions about reality and point of view don't.

That said, you have to see the movie objectively -- with your own eyes -- instead of seeing the movie you expect to see. To me, it's obvious. But the myth of Rashomon is so powerful, it drowns out the truth that's right in front of your eyes. So far, everyone I've talked to has rejected my interpretation.

I am a church of one.

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